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A Native voice in their care

A student wraps a bandage around a patient's arm during a medical simulation.
Dr. Wil James, a faculty member at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and assistant director of mentoring and student success for Native American Health Sciences, plays the role of a patient in a medical simulation held recently at the Center for Native American Health at WSU Spokane.

Working with a Native American “healers cohort,” the Washington State University Health Sciences campus in Spokane created dedicated spaces where Indigenous students can find fellowship and mentorship, community members can gather, and current and future healthcare professionals can learn more about caring for Indigenous patients.

WSU Spokane’s Center for Native American Health, as the new facilities are called, is designed to address longstanding health disparities in Native American and Alaska Native communities in the United States, where higher rates of chronic illness and shorter lifespans are the norm.  Addressing that reality is a focus of research at WSU, just as recruiting more Indigenous students into healthcare professions has been a goal of WSU Health Sciences.  

The Center for Native American Health was funded mostly by grants from the Empire Health Foundation and Bank of America. The student center was officially celebrated and blessed in August 2021, while the clinical simulation space was first used this fall. Both of those spaces as well as a tribal community gathering place are located on the WSU Spokane campus. 

All of the spaces are intended to give Indigenous healthcare greater visibility and understanding in modern medicine, nursing and pharmacy practice, said Naomi Bender, director of WSU’s Native American Health Sciences program. 

“We want to help change the trajectory for equitable health for our people in ways that medical education hasn’t provided in the past,” said Bender, who is Indigenous Quechua (Peru). “We want students to ask, ‘How can I become more knowledgeable and culturally proficient to better treat this patient in a way that honors who they are, honors their family and honors their community?” 

Guided by the Native American community

The development of the clinical and meeting spaces has been guided by a “healers cohort,” a group of Native American community members, healthcare professionals and traditional healers brought together by Bender in fall 2020.  

The group’s input included the design of the spaces, which feature Native American art, wood-toned floors, a water feature and images of the history of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the latter funded by a grant from the Avista Foundation. 

Through simulations developed in consultation with the healers cohort, students will have the chance to learn about cultural practices and aspects of traditional medicine. They’re also likely to realize they have assumptions or implicit biases about Indigenous patients, said Carrie Gigray, Indigenous clinical simulation educator, Native American Health Sciences. 

“This space is to break down those assumptions and elevate patient-centered care,” she said. 

As an example, she cites a scenario of a patient who has diabetes and lives on a remote reservation; that person might not have easy access to the fresh foods a doctor or nurse recommends. 

“If you don’t understand how a Native American might live on a reservation, you don’t understand there may be food scarcity,” Gigray said. “You assume the patient has the ability to change their diet, but they may not.” 

A unique center

The simulation center opened this fall for students at the WSU College of Medicine. Students from the colleges of Nursing and Pharmacy will join them in interprofessional teams starting next semester. Soon, working healthcare professionals in the community will also be able to participate in simulations there. 

The simulation center is unique in the nation, Gigray said. Consequently, there’s been a lot of interest by other healthcare educators and providers. It’s due to expand once remodeling of another building on campus opens up adjacent space. An Indigenous healers retreat in April began the process of designing the uses and look for that area. 

Gigray said she hopes the new center is a place where Native American and Alaska Native community members can share stories to help educate current and future healthcare providers. 

“We want it to be a warm, welcoming, a place where Native Americans can have a voice in their care.” 

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